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Re-imagining a more democratic public university system – part 1

The recent address by Raewyn Connell to the People’s Tribunal covered well-known reforms and transformations that have taken place in the Australian higher education system (and for that matter in large parts of the the world) – casualisation of academic roles, outsourcing of professional roles, increasing reliance on student fees especially international students, declining public funding, introduction of competitive mechanisms (for example, Australia has one of the highest ratios of project-based competitive funding compared with direct institutional funding) and ever-increasing administrative practices as part of the academic workload.

Connell says

What we still need is a way of changing the institutions in a democratic direction – a long-term vision for public universities, and a practical agenda for the near future.

I think the discussion has to deal with three sets of problems.  First, what will a more democratic university look like as an organization? – as a good place to work for all types of workers, as a place of shared rather than top-down decision-making.  What are the teaching and learning practices we need for a more satisfying and relevant higher education?

Second, considering the university as a knowledge institution, what kinds of knowledge will be created and taught?  What are the research agendas that universities need to pursue, as Australia moves from a colonial past into a turbulent and dangerous future?  What will curricula of the future be, if our universities are to be more than retail offices for globalized MOOC vendors?

Third, what are better ways of linking Australian universities to the wider society?  Who will be the new participants in university life, a generation down the track?  Can we have social justice in higher education, and if so, how?  How can universities develop a cultural identity more authentic and credible than the current boasting and brand-mongering?

I hope that I can offer some further reflections on these issues in the coming weeks.

As a starting point, I would direct attention to the following from the LSE blog by John Turpenny discussing similar issues facing the UK higher education system

Generally, policies are not just created at high levels and imposed on those further down who have to implement them to the letter. Policy cannot feasibly be made as a set of instructions with every eventuality specified. There is a necessary reliance on large amount of discretion among those at ‘street-level’ as to how policies are carried out. Police officers on the beat, for example, have a huge influence on how policing policy is implemented, by deciding who to arrest, who to question, and what offences to pursue as priorities. This discretion also shapes and changes the policy itself. The actions of ‘street-level’ public servants actually help create policy in their specific areas, whether those people recognise it or not. So there is a choice. Academics grudgingly ticking boxes will have some influence on policy, but probably not the desired one. We can do better than that. By acknowledging that higher education policy is something we help create, rather than something that is wholly done to us, we can start to make a difference.

Any consideration of these important issues has to be depart from the perspective that academics  cooperate in the use and misuse of higher education policies – we cannot sustain a narrow and naive view of how power operates in which academics are automatons. The responsiveness of academics to higher education policy in Australia has been convincingly demonstrated. But why? What are the drivers? Well, one of the more compelling explanations is that ‘peer esteem’ is a key motivator.

And this makes sense – the fact is that market mechanisms, competition and elitism are at the heart of academic work. For example, the closed-world of peer review, invented by elite learned societies in the 19th century, is based on two fundamental ideas – the logic of the system ensures that the best work is published, and because academic work is so specialised only other specialists can judge its merits.

This has been maintained in spite of countless evidence that the system does not work like this – plenty of fraud goes undetected while plenty of good science gets rejected, and in the words of Nobel Laureate Sydney Brenner

And of course all the academics say we’ve got to have peer review. But I don’t believe in peer review because I think it’s very distorted and as I’ve said, it’s simply a regression to the mean.

By the middle of last century JD Bernal had already identified that the specialisation of scientific work was one of the defining characteristics of modern science setting it apart from science of the past

while science grows and influences our daily lives more and more, it is not becoming more readily understandable. The actual practitioners of the several sciences have, in the course of time, moved almost imperceptibly into realms where they find it necessary to create special languages to express the new things and relations that they discovered, and have in the main not bothered to translate even the more interesting part of their work into ordinary language. Science has already acquired so many of the characteristics of an exclusive profession, including that of a long training and apprenticeship, that it is popularly more easy to recognize a scientist than to know what science is.

This is understandable in many respects given that (as Bernal again traces) science came to us through the bourgeois tradition. In much the same way, humanities research is also founded in the bourgeois tradition as Terry Eagleton says

In the early eighteenth century, then, the bourgeois principle of abstract free and equal exchange is elevated from the market-place to the sphere of discourse, to mystify and idealize real bourgeois and social relations. The petty proprietors of a commodity known as ‘opinion’ assemble together for its regulated interchange, at once miming in purer, non-dominative form the exchanges of bourgeois economy, and contributing to the political apparatus which sustains it. The public sphere thereby constructed is at once universal and class-specific” all may in principle participate in it, but only because the class-determined criteria of what counts as significant participation are always unlodgeably in place. The currency of this realm is neither title nor property but rationality – a rationality in fact articulable only by those with the social interests which property generates.

So re-imagining a more democratic future for higher education in Australia is about more than just the structures and the policies that have been put in place – it is about democratising academic work, in the first instance, and accepting that what we are trying to reform is effectively an ideological state apparatus (albeit a really worthwhile one) that reproduces class interests (bourgeois) – our own. With this as our starting point I think it is possible to begin to rally around Connell’s calls.